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Chemical and Biological Engineering

Eva Steinle-Darling ’03

Environmental Engineer, Erler & Kalinowski, Inc.

The choice of chemical engineering, and in fact, engineering in general, was not at all clear to me when I started as a freshman at Princeton. I knew from some experience abroad during high school and some internships that I wanted to work in the environmental field—a fairly broad aim, to say the least. I always had enjoyed and excelled at math and chemistry. (Physics was another story—hence my hesitation with engineering in the first place—but I do love a challenge!) I was also pretty sure right from the beginning that I wanted to pursue graduate work in an environmental field. And so my reasoning, which has since been validated many times over, was that I should learn the fundamentals first, and worry about the applications later. 

What controls processes in the environment? Math, chemistry, physics, and biology. Mass and heat transport. Fluid flow. Want to understand nutrient transport in coral reefs? Better know your fluid dynamics—and some chemistry and biology, too! Want to know how to remediate a large solvent spill? Better know what microbes (biology) will eat your gunk, under what conditions (redox chemistry, anyone?), and what the competing abiotic processes are (surface chemistry!). Oh, and you’ll want to understand the chemical transport processes, too. Want to design a reactor to treat the remediation byproducts? This one’s obvious: Better know your chemical engineering! 

After graduating from Princeton in 2003 with a freshly minted B.S.E. in chemical engineering (now the chemical and biological engineering department) and a certificate in environmental studies, I headed to Stanford University for a Ph.D. in environmental engineering. I began with a one-year master of science, and found that I was able to breeze through most of my classes because of the great fundamentals I had brought from Princeton. This gave me the confidence to dive headfirst into several research projects right off the bat. I pursued a number of different paths until being inspired to pursue research on the removal of microconstituents (i.e., trace concentrations of small organic molecules generally of anthropogenic origin, such as pharmaceuticals) from recycled water using high-pressure membranes originally designed for use in desalination. 

From academia to applications

After graduating from Stanford with my Ph.D. in 2008, I went to work for a small environmental engineering firm in the San Francisco Bay Area. There I have been fortunate enough to work on a very wide variety of projects. Once again the fundamentals I learned in chemical engineering at Princeton have served me very well, and I have been able to jump with relative ease onto almost any project team and be a strong technical contributor. My career as an environmental engineer is still young, but I am confident that my skill set, grounded in a fantastic set of chemical engineering fundamentals, will take me far. 

All this is not to say that the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) would have been an incorrect choice for me. In fact, I took nearly all my engineering electives in that department and was co-advised by CEE Professor Catherine Peters during my senior thesis work. Either department (and for that matter, most Princeton majors, especially in engineering), can offer many different paths. If you look at the previous editions of Major Choices, you’ll find that none of the featured chemical engineering majors ended up doing anything at all related to the field of chemical engineering, though all of them ended up with pretty fantastic careers. Whichever major you choose, I urge you to consider your major not as a definition of your field of study and, ultimately, work, but as a starting point from which to venture forth!